Astronauts Jack R. Lousma and C. Gordon Fullerton wrote another textbook ending to the space shuttle adventure today when they landed Columbia on a desert runway here, 1,000 miles from the California desert for which they originally were targeted.
A day late because of the dust storms that kept them in orbit on Monday, Lousma and Fullerton flew the 100-ton spaceliner through tail and head winds to a perfect landing on the desert floor of the Tularosa Valley between the San Andres mountain range on the west and the Sacramento Mountains on the east.
The astronauts touched down at 11:05 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, 21 hours late because of dust storms in southeastern New Mexico.
"It's great to be on the ground at White Sands, which we could see from orbit yesterday was obliterated in a blizzard of sand," Columbia commander Lousma said two hours after landing. "Everybody made the right choice when they waved us off on Monday."
Today's mission, the third straight successful test flight with one more scheduled, put the space agency on schedule to begin operational shuttle flights later this year. Delays in testing its engines and developing the lightweight tiles that protect the spaceliner from the heat of reentry had put the shuttle two years behind schedule before the first test flight last April.
"We've proven once again that when we want to, we can do splendid things and make them look easy," National Aeronautics and Space Administrator James M. Beggs said in a short welcoming ceremony.
It was not as easy as it looked. The day began for Lousma and Fullerton at 3 a.m. EST, when they were awakened by flight directors at Houston's Mission Control Center to get Columbia ready for landing the second day in a row.
That meant closing and locking the cargo bay doors, resetting switches on control panels, reconfiguring the five on-board computers for reentry and landing and powering up the three hydraulic systems to maneuver the space craft once it reentered the atmosphere.
Flight directors scheduled the earlier landing (9 a.m. Mountain Standard Time) so the astronauts would not have to buck the high winds that picked up here Monday before noon. The winds kept rising until they blew dust as high as 10,000 feet over the landing strip and reduced visibility at the two runways here to zero.
The decision proved correct. Surface winds were no higher than 10 knots before landing and no more than 14 knots at landing. Flying approach patterns in a jet aircraft built to land like the shuttle, astronaut John Young said visibility was so good he could see from White Sands to San Francisco.
"They ought to be able to see the runways from 80 miles away," Young said. "I think everything is good here."
Already on their way down as they flew past Hawaii near the end of their 129th and last orbit, Lousma and Fullerton followed a flight path that took them across Baja California 50 miles south of the Mexican resort of Ensenada. They continued on a northeasterly route over the United States between Yuma and Lukeville in Arizona and then across New Mexico over the town of Truth or Consequences on the western slope of the San Andres Mountains.
For some unexplained reason, Lousma thought he was coming across the coast of southern California instead of Baja, the path he would have flown had he landed on Monday.
"This is really a beautiful flying machine," Lousma said as Columbia sped across Baja California at 14 times the speed of sound. "We've got the coast of California in sight and we're booming right over the commander-in-chief's ranch right now."
Lousma meant President Reagan's ranch, which is in the California hills north of Los Angeles and east of Santa Barbara. There was no way Lousma could have been booming over the president's ranch and no way he could have the southern California coast in sight since it was covered by dense clouds.
What he saw was the coast of Baja California.
Speeding across the desert at White Sands, Lousma and Fullerton were helped along by a 14-knot tail wind that forced Lousma to lower the speed brake below the tail of the spaceliner to slow it down. Banking in a sharp right turn, Lousma then maneuvered the shuttle almost directly into the same wind to slow it down even more.
Retracting the speed brake, Lousma flew the delta-winged spacecraft toward Runway 17 at a speed of almost 220 knots.
Lifting the shuttle's nose to slow it still more, Lousma did not lower the landing gear until he was about only 100 feet off the ground. The shuttle commander lowers the spacecraft's landing gear when he takes control from the autopilot, which Lousma did a little later than his predecessors.
Touching the two main wheels under the wings onto the desert floor, Lousma lowered the craft's nose, which suddenly flared up again. One explanation was that it had suddenly been hit with a gust of wind. Another was that he landed too fast and raised the nose to lower his speed.
Whatever the reason, the nose wheel then kissed the white sands of the desert floor and the spacecraft rolled on to a stop a little more than one minute later.
Said astronaut Steve Nagle from Houston's Mission Control: "Welcome home, that was a beautiful job." Replied Lousma: "The spacecraft performed magnificently. All we had to do was fly it around and do what we were told."
Later on, Fullerton told a crowd of well-wishers, fellow astronauts and space agency employes that Columbia belongs to all of them.
"I hope you'll all consider Columbia your spacecraft and that all America will consider it their spacecraft," Fullerton said. "It's an unbelievable, beautiful flying machine."